As electric utilities faced Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two Storm Panel this week, at least one wireless telephone provider is working to avoid public scrutiny of their performance by the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC).
The CSC sent the state’s wireless providers a survey on Sept. 22 requesting information on network performance following Tropical Storm Irene. To date only one of the state’s five carriers, MetroPCS, completed and returned the survey before the CSC’s Oct. 31 deadline. Verizon Wireless sent the Council a formal request for a protective order to keep their responses private.
Many wireless customers lost service following the storms when grid power was lost to cellular phone towers and switching facilities.
The 21 question survey asked carriers how many total cell sites were impacted by the loss of electrical power, and how many of those losing power had backup power generation. Responses are voluntary, although CSC Executive Director Linda Roberts noted that all carriers responded to a June, 2011 CSC request following a tornado that struck Springfield, Mass.
“The Connecticut Siting Council is very concerned with outages and constantly strives to ensure that adequate safe guards are put in place during the siting of towers to ensure that cell service is continued during storms and other emergencies,” Roberts said.
Verizon, in requesting the protective order, said the information the CSC is seeking is “commercially valuable, confidential, and proprietary” and “worthy of the protected treatment that is sought.” The CSC will consider Verizon’s request at a meeting scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
Ultimately the reason for the carriers’ lack of response may be because the CSC does not have the authority to formally request the information, nor is there any state authority responsible for monitoring or regulating performance of cellular networks. Carriers can simply choose not to respond.
The CSC does have jurisdiction and the authority to at times override local municipal objections regarding the placement of cellular towers, but it lacks the authority to impose emergency backup requirements for those towers. Carriers currently set their own standards for back-up power generation.
John Emra, regional vice president of AT&T, said Tuesday that his company has 675 cell sites in the state and none of them have backup generation, but generators were brought in during the two recent storms to keep the sites up and running.
“Wireless networks, like wired networks, depend on reliable commercial power,” Emra said. “We bring generators out into the field to support batteries during power outages.”
Joe McGee, chairman of the Two Storm Panel, pressed Emra to tell him the standard in the industry. Emra said there is an FCC proceeding on the issue. McGee countered there’s also a state proceeding and the state wants some answers because it may decide to set its own standard.
Dan Mullin, executive director of state public policy at Verizon Wireless, told the Two Storm Panel it is the company’s policy to provide backup generation at every site where possible. He said they even use events like the recent storm to go back to landlords where the site is located on the top of a building, instead of a tower, and ask again to install backup generation.
Michael Malenich, director of system performance for Verizon’s New England region, said there are generators at 90 percent of the sites in Connecticut. “we’re funded every year to equip every site with a generator if we can do it,” he said. “That’s been our standard as a company nationwide.”
CSC Chairman Robin Stein, who also testified before the panel, asked for a greater role in future disaster recovery planning as it relates to cellular phone service as well as electrical substations and transmission lines.
The federal government faces similar challenges. Following Hurricane Katrina the Federal Communications Commission attempted to impose backup power rules for cellular sites. The wireless industry filed suit to block the rule and the Bush administration later withdrew it. The FCC is continuing to explore ways in which it can apply some kind of network reliability mandate.
Wireless companies do voluntarily report reliability data (including storm related outages) to the FCC, but carrier specific information is kept confidential by the agency.